Among those who minister the Word, Scripture distinguishes the evangelist, the pastor, and the teacher. (BCO FG Chapter VI:2). Ministers must be of sound faith, appropriate human learning and preparation for office, able to teach others, and must exhibit a walk of life that fits his calling.
Ministers are called by a congregation with the help of the oversight of a Regional Church, properly called a presbytery. In Continental Reformed churches, the presbytery is known as the Classis. In Reformed and Presbyterian churches, the Regional Church (Classis or Presbytery) is a court of appeal.
In Reformed churches, a minister is a member of the congregation he is called to serve. Presbyterian church ministers are installed into office as a member of the Regional Church (Presbytery) and not a member of the church they serve. In both Reformed and Presbyterian churches, when complaints or charges arise against a minister of the Word these are addressed to the appellant court where the Classis or Presbytery can assemble as a judicial body to hear such matters. Except when assembled as a judicial court, under normal circumstances this body is constituted as a deliberative body to weigh matters and to declare what the Scriptures make known of the will of God.
The structure of the governance of Reformed and Presbyterian churches places responsibility on the elders of the local church and of the Regional church to exercise spiritual oversight and care for the ministers of the Word. Ministers, together with the members of the Regional Church (ministers and ruling elders), are responsible to nurture each other their work and to oversee their conduct of office.
The Lord gives to certain men the gifts, skills, and desire for office which together may result in an external call to office to serve God’s people. The church body, in one congregation or another, shall determine who shall serve them. Those who receive a call to ministry are further overseen by the Regional Church. Ordination is the church’s process of approval and of attestation to a man’s recognition of an internal call to serve. In 1 Timothy 3:1-13, we find a summary of necessary gifts that reveal themselves in outward interaction of the man with the saints, usually within the bounds of a local church body (congregation).
Training, Ordination, and Service of Ministers
The body that ordains a man to office must satisfy itself of the man’s suitable skills set, his gifting from on high, and also his training. In accordance with BCO FG Chapter XXIII.3, men who prepare for ministry are required to have “satisfactorily completed the academic requirements set forth in Chapter XXI, Section 3, and an adequate course of study in a theological seminary equivalent to that required for a regular three-year theological degree.” He also must demonstrate a proficient understanding of the English Bible, ecclesiastical history, theology, and the original languages (Hebrew and Greek) of the Scriptures. He must be able to accurately discern truth from error, and must be able teach others with fidelity to the Word, and also to the confessional standards of the church (the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Larger and Shorter Catechism). He must be able to preach and exhort God’s people well and to gently lead them to Jesus Christ in the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Having satisfied itself, the man will be ordained by prayer and the laying on of the hands of the presbytery and installed as a minister of the congregation who called him.
The Candidates and Credentials Committee of the presbytery (the Regional Church) is responsible for overseeing his training, and shall examine a man who seeks a call as a minister of God’s Word. All members of presbytery (ministers and ruling elders) join with this committee to oversee the rightful preparation for office. They also must satisfy themselves that man who seeks licensing to preach can meet requirements for office, both in respect of training, gifting, and character.
Ruling elders are chosen by the people (BCO FG Chapter XXV:1) from among their number, to join with the ministers in the government of the church. Ruling elders must be men with suitable gifts for government, with commission to execute the same when called thereto. Ruling elders, individually and jointly with the pastor in the Session, are to lead the church in the service of Christ (BCO FG Chapter X).
In order that these sacred offices not be committed to weak or unworthy men, and that the congregations shall have an opportunity to form a better judgment respecting the gifts of those by whom they are to be governed and served, no one shall normally be eligible for election to office until he has been a communicant member in good standing for at least one year, shall have received appropriate training under the direction of or with the approval of the Session, and shall have served the church in functions requiring responsible leadership. (BCO FG Chapter XXV:3). Men of ability and piety in the congregation shall be encouraged by the Session to prepare themselves for the offices of ruling elder or deacon so that their study and opportunities for service may be provided for in a systematic and orderly way.
Like the minister, ruling elders must exhibit appropriate gifts, skills, character, and knowledge of the Scriptures. They must be well versed in the confessional standards of the church. To facilitate the smooth governance of the church, they are greatly assisted by a rich knowledge of the Book of Church Order (BCO) of the OPC.
It is the duty and privilege of ruling elders, in the name and by the authority of our ascended king, to rule over particular churches, and, as servants of our great shepherd, to care for his flock. Holy Scripture enjoins them: “Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops, to feed the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28) As a consequence, ruling elders must be zealous in maintaining the purity of the ministration of the Word and sacraments. They must conscientiously exercise discipline and uphold the good order and peace of the church. With love and humility they should promote faithfulness on the part of both elders and deacons in the discharge of their duties.
Moreover, they should have particular regard to the doctrine and conduct of the minister of the Word, in order that the church may be edified, and may manifest itself as the pillar and ground of the truth.
Training, Ordination, and Service of Ruling Elders
If they are to fill worthily so sacred an office, ruling elders must adorn sound doctrine by holy living, setting an example of godliness in all their relations with men. Let them walk with exemplary piety and diligently discharge the obligations of their office; and “when the chief shepherd shall be manifested,” they “shall receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.”
The minister works with the ruling elders of the local congregation to assure the proper training of men prior to their being presented to the congregation as certified for election to office. Ministers may call upon any members of presbytery to assist in the training of potential office bearers in the local congregation. It is a common practice in Reformed and Presbyterian churches to request augmentation of the Session to facilitate the search for men who exhibit gifts for office as elder or deacon, to assist in their training and preparation, and ultimately to hand-over to them the work they have augmented. Having being elected to serve, the man will be ordained by prayer and the laying on of the hands of the Session and installed.
Elder John H. Terpstra
Next week: The courts of the church, their functions, and the role of officers within them.